Subtitled ‘Confessions of a House Addict’ the book more than lives up to that description. St Aubin de Teran is a novelist and I have several of her books although I am mainly drawn to her autobiographical work documenting her increasingly complicated life as she bounces from country to country. She was born in London, but when she had just turned sixteen married a much older Venezuelan sugar plantation owner and bank robber, hence her surname. Eventually she moved to that country at the age of seventeen and ran his estate over the next seven years. It was here that she had her daughter Iseult, known throughout this book as ‘the child Isuelt’ or more simply ‘the child’ despite there also being a younger brother (by her second husband) who is normally just referred to as Allie. By 1989 when this book is set Iseult was now fifteen and just as confident and precocious as her mother had been at the same age, having already been employed as a model in Paris. As for Lisa she was married to her third husband, the artist Robbie Duff Scott and they were looking for a new home in Italy, preferably large and rambling, however bearing in mind the state of their finances it also had to be pretty dilapidated.
I saw the house I had been looking for all my life. It was standing like a jilted beauty still dressed in its ancient best. The abandoned facade was groaning under tons of sculpted terracotta. There was row upon row of long graceful windows reaching down to white marble sills, there were dozens of arches, a loggia, a roof, a balcony and a cascade of wisteria.
I gleaned these impressions through my first glances. Then, though I subsequently climbed through one of the missing windows and roamed around for nearly an hour, I was so entranced that I saw little else that I could remember with any clarity. There was a white marble staircase stretching up with cantilevered vertigo through four floors with neither balustrade nor banister against the sheer drop. There was a white marble fireplace some ten feet high in a blackened kitchen. There were two tractors, a combine harvester and a transport van all rusting in the downstairs hall.
And so the description goes on, almost all the doors were missing as well as the windows, a large part of the roof and indeed most of an exterior wall. They agreed to buy it straight away and only when then had driven away realised that they didn’t actually know where it was as the agent had taken them there as a second choice so they had no documents to tell them anything about it.
It was agreed that Lisa and the child would go to the house to supervise getting the restoration started, Robbie had to go back to Scotland to look after her terminally ill father and Allie would finish that years schooling from their apartment in Venice in the care of ‘the beauties’ two statuesque young Irish women who were employed as nannies. On arrival at the ruined building where they were going to camp as none of the rooms were actually habitable Lisa discovered that despite her careful packing of kitchen utensils, tools, coats, torches and camping equipment the child had simply replaced everything before they left with items a teenage girl deemed essential, that is lots of her impractical clothes, shoes and gallons of make-up and face-packs. As you can imagine their discovery at the house the next morning by the builder and his team they were employing to restore the villa was a real surprise to the men and it took some time to convince them that they really were the new owners. This set the tone of eccentricity the family gained in the village which was only increased by the eventual arrival of Allie and the beauties but still no man of the household which was unheard of in central Italy.
The book is extremely funny, not only in it’s description of the chaotic rebuilding of the villa over the following year but also in the way they all eventually become accepted in the village and the tales of how they got to know their neighbours. The children led the way into the hearts of the people, Iseult had a trail of admirers almost from first arriving and Allie was soon adored by the families. The beauties (we never do learn their names) also had a string of admirers not only from their looks and height (both over 6 feet tall) but also from the fact that only one of the men in the entire village could beat them at arm wrestling! Eventually Robbie arrived and they became a respectable family unit at last and what could have been just another rebuild a ruin book morphs into a charming story about life in an Umbrian village. I heartily recommend it as a great introduction to the works of Lisa St Aubin de Teran and if you do read and enjoy it I suggest Off the Rails which was written earlier as the next one to try. I will at some point reread The Hacienda which is the story of her seven traumatic years in Venezuela, maybe a project for a years time as a follow up to this blog.